It’s true that there have always been people famous for being famous. They drift down from the upper echelons of society and offer little value. Traditionally, though, you needed extraordinary wealth and breeding to be part of this club. Then, as the 21st century dawned, the perfect storm began to form the memeocracy.
Our obsession with celebrity came to television: The orchestrated semi-real existence of The Osbournes and the Kardashian family hit screens. Later, when this combined with social media, the modern “influencer” was born. The Kardashians became the de facto royal family.
Meanwhile, shows like American Idol, X-Factor, and Britain’s Got Talent created stars from hitherto unknown talents. Kelly Clarkson, Alexandra Burke, and One Direction documented their journey from obscurity to fame. Talent was still a necessity, but the narrative became an important prerequisite.
One pivotal moment, though, was when a Dutch television producer brought Big Brother to the world. In 2000, the U.K. found itself gripped by the first season of Big Brother. Most people can only remember the names of the winner (Craig) and the villain (Nasty Nick). Everyone else has since faded into obscurity.
The following decade of Big Brother would see contestants increasing in outrageousness. Reality TV moved away from wealthy socialites and into other echelons of society. In the U.K., we turned the spotlight to Essex and Newcastle to capture the antics of working-class residents. Increasingly, regular people saw the potential for their own TV careers.
By 2008, social media was further leveling the playing field. Normal people could broadcast themselves. Early YouTubers were as natural and naïve as the early Big Brother contestants. They were quickly supplanted by glossy vloggers. Today, YouTube is awash with “personalities.” They have learned that being very good or very bad is the only real way to build a following.
Getting and maintaining attention is key to success. Attention is the new currency, and to stay afloat, you must maintain a healthy flow of it in your direction. Many young people are jealous of the ability to do so. For those continually trying to “go viral,” disappointment is often their only companion.
Bhad Bhabie managed to be in the right place at the right time. She was picked up by market forces. Society didn’t have time to consider the implications of rewarding Bregoli. We just did it. Thanks to meme culture, we rewarded a teenager for her antisocial behavior. We gave impetus to the producers, PR teams, and lawyers who helped her build a career out of attention.
These people aren’t good or bad themselves — they are simply a reflection of their time.
In the wilds of memeocracy, there is no oversight. Previous generations enjoyed orchestrated prank shows that were overseen by producers. Today, the prank show has given way to “cloutlighting,” a disturbing trend that straddles a dangerous line between comedy and abuse.
Brad Holmes, who has 2.4 million Facebook followers, filmed himself coating his girlfriend’s tampon in chiles and laughing at her resulting agony. Though Holmes took down the video after critics blasted it as misogynistic and abusive, it still reached millions and was even shared by media outlets. Logan Paul’s filming of a suicide victim in Japan may have prompted backlash, but it didn’t affect his viewing figures at all. Those likes may seem harmless, but they convert directly into cold hard cash.
We know that we should ignore these people or offer them help and support with their unresolved issues. This is what a good society should do. But Bregoli, Holmes, and Paul all have an income dependent on attention, and it doesn’t matter whether it’s good or bad attention. These people aren’t good or bad themselves—they are simply a reflection of their time.
For those who have tied their economic fortunes to attention from others, the market is volatile. Traditional enterprises allow owners to walk away, but there’s no walking away from a company based on your personality. What do you build the rest of your life around when your only marketable asset is no longer marketable?
Some of those thrust into fame by the memeocracy will make it. But many won’t. When the bull markets turn bearish and their stock begins to wane, we will see a change. What do we do with a generation taught to sell themselves when nobody wants to buy anymore?
In the U.K., we are already seeing a rise in suicides among the young population. Studies have linked social media use with poor mental health, especially for teenage girls. These are consequences that should be laid squarely at our collective feet. We created and continue to perpetuate the memeocracy.